Sunday, February 6, 2011

Michele Bachmann's Constitutional Classes: Spring Training for the Minor Leagues?

Guest Post By Nomadic Joe

Normally when a Republic as great as the United States elects a citizen to a high office, the public expects that person to be politically "fully-developed." Naturally we don't expect to have to give classes to teach them what they should already be familiar with, such as, for example, the laws of the land or the basic principles upon which that republic was founded, namely the Constitution. And we certainly don't expect the American taxpayers to foot the bill for these remedial classes. Yet, apparently Rep. Michele Bachmann thinks that new members of Congress - read, Tea Party members - need some indoctrination into the the extreme far right's world view.

In an interview with Lou Dobbs, Bachmann outlined the concept in sporting terms:

Dobbs: You've got a terrific idea that you're going to implement with the new Congress: a course on the Constitution for incoming Congressmen and women. Tell us about that.
Bachmann: We're going to do what the NFL does and what the baseball teams do: we're going to practice every week, if you will, our craft, which is studying and learning the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Justice Scalia has graciously agreed to kick off our class. The hour before we cast our first vote in congress, we'll meet in the Capitol, we'll have a seminar on some segment of the Constitution, we'll have a speaker, we'll have questions and answers, we'll wrap our minds around this magnificent document [and] that'll set the tone for the week while we're in Washington.


“Every week the hour before we take our first votes, we have our weekly class so that we are reminded of our constitutional jurisdictional limits,” Bachmann told Glenn Beck in a recent radio interview.

Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Bachmann, explained:"It was something she’s always wanted to do. There’s so many folks that come to Capitol Hill to discuss obscure and mundane topics, but no one coming regularly to discuss bill of rights or the role of government.”

Although Bachmann doesn't plan on teaching the class, Gor added, she will organize sessions with constitutional scholars, experts, and judges likely to be held in one of the committee rooms on the Capitol Hill complex. According to a report by Politico in October 2010, Gor explained that the classes will be open to any members — not just freshman — looking to continue their study of America’s founding documents. They will not be open, however, to staff or members of the press, and the list of speakers won’t be made public.

However his statement, like so much about the Tea Party, is misleading. Both the topics being discussed and the speakers who have reportedly been asked to lecture are much more specific than Gor's statement suggests.

Even the way the opening seminar with Justice Scalia was conducted is questionable and shadowy. Take a look at this telephone conversation between a Daily Kos reporter and a staffer at Bachmann office, which was published on January 24, 2011:

REC: No, it is a seminar.
ME: Then, why is it closed to the public. I thought the only time a Caucus was "closed" was when the members were deciding on "policy."
REC: Justice Scalia is not speaking to the Tea Party Caucus. Justice Scalia is speaking to all members of Congress.
ME: Then why is it "closed" to the public.
REC: For security reasons.
ME: Where is the meeting being held?
REC: In the Capitol building
ME: Did they close the Capitol Building to the public today?
REC: No.
ME: Then Scalia's Seminar is not closed due to security reasons at all. Otherwise they would have cleared the Capitol.
REC: It is "closed" because it is a Congressional Constitutional Seminar.
ME: The only "Closed Door" Seminars I have attended are only "Closed" because the group hosting the event wants to make sure they get paid - so they can pay the Seminar Speaker. Since you are telling me Scalia is not getting paid there is no reason to "close" this seminar off from the public.
REC: It is closed because there was not enough room to handle the press.
ME: You told me that the Seminar was open to all 535 members of Congress. CNN is reporting that only 40 people showed up. That means there is PLENTY of empty seats for the press. So, who made the decision to have a "Closed Door" Seminar and why was that decision made.
REC: Members of Congress have 'closed door' meetings all the time.
ME: Is this a "meeting" or a "seminar."
REC: It is a Constitutional Seminar.

Influence and Conflicts

When certain members of the Supreme Court are allowed to give policy advice behind closed doors to selected members of Congress, it is time to start asking questions about ethics and impartiality of their rulings.

Issues of judicial ethics have already been raised regarding Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the more conservative members of the bench, attendance at seminars sponsored by the energy giant and Tea Party bank-roller Koch Industries. While there is nothing unusual about Supreme Court Justices attending seminars, the Koch event seems to have been more political than the usual fare. In its own invitation, it was described as a "twice a year" gathering "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." I think it is safe to assume this would be liberal policies.

"I think it is very important for judges to be part of the real world and to appear in public for educative purposes to help explain the arcane mysteries of the court to the general public," said William G. Ross, a judicial ethics professor at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law. "That is very healthy and I don't think that judges should isolate themselves in a marble palace... However I am very troubled by the tendency of judges to make broader comments on public issues and to appear in public or private gatherings in which there are political overtones."

A reform group called Common Cause requested that the Department of Justice investigate possible conflicts of interest regarding their appearance at Koch brother's retreats at the very time the court was deliberating a case which would allow corporation to spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission).

So, the question boils down to: Is there any real evidence that judicial decision were affected or influenced by Koch? Nothing concrete. However there is circumstantial evidence.

In the dissenting opinion of the Supreme Court by Justice Stevens, it was noted that the decision of the court over-reached the original case brought before it and so claimed that the majority "changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law." Stevens concluded his dissent with: Basically a case of opportunism.

Justice Thomas, the other Koch retreat attendee, would have preferred to go even further. In order to protect the anonymity of corporations that contributed financially - an exercise of their free speech according this ruling - Thomas argued that making contributor lists public makes the contributors vulnerable to retaliation, citing instances of retaliation against contributors to both sides of a then recent California voter initiative. Thomas also expressed concern that such retaliation could extend to retaliation by elected officials.

In any case, whether or not there was any corporate influence in this historic - some say disastrous - court decision, the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines the impartiality of the court and therefore the Justices should have recused themselves from the case.

Beyond the question of Koch and its influence, Justice Thomas is facing, separate ethical questions regarding his wife's lobbying efforts on behalf of the Tea Party. According to a New York Times article, Mrs. Thomas is the founder and head of a new nonprofit group, "Liberty Central", dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist “tyranny” of President Obama and Democrats in Congress and to “protecting the core founding principles” of the nation.

Guest Speaker Barton

The list of seminar speakers is a tightly held secret but rumor has it that Bachmann intends to invite another member of the Supreme Court bench, Chief Justice John Roberts, Beyond Supreme Court Justices, Bachmann has also supposedly made plans to court a variety of other conservative stars, such as 9/11 "truther" and judge, Andrew Napolitano, Fox News personality Sean Hannity, and controversial Evangelical and separation-of-church-and-state denier David Barton to teach the "bipartisan" classes, AOL News reported last month.

The mention of David Barton should raise a lot of eyebrows from those in the know. Think Glenn Beck on steroids and that, believe it or not, is a charitable, a kind view of this character. David is a controversial figure whose ideas about the constitution and the founding fathers have drawn sharp criticism from both the religious and secular communities.

Bachmann and Barton, who have worked together for many years, have a long relationship going back to Bachmann’s time as state senator. Barton was invited to Minnesota to help Bachmann with legislation on school history standards, she’s appeared his radio show numerous times and she and Barton have conducted tours in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate to tea partiers how religious the Founding Fathers were.

Barton came to Minnesota in 2005 to help Bachmann shape the state’s “history standards.” Bachmann wanted to make sure that references to religion in historical documents were taught in Minnesota’s public schools. Barton came to the Minnesota Senate to give a presentation at Bachmann’s invitation.

The statements Barton has made in the past are certainly not the kind of remarks that bring either honor or information to the halls of Congress. For example, he has stated in all seriousness that the government should regulate homosexuality (if you don't believe me, please check this link).

According to the Anti-Defamation League, David Barton, a self-described historian promoted by Fox News' Glenn Beck, has twice spoken to groups affiliated with the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity movement. Beck himself has promoted the work and ideas of anti-Semites.

Also, the details of the charge do not paint a pretty portrait of Barton. In 1991 Barton addressed the Rocky Mountain Bible Retreat of Pastor Pete Peters' Scriptures for America, a group that espouses the racist "Christian Identity" theology. Advocates of this bizarre dogma insist that white Anglo-Saxons are the "true" chosen people of the Bible and charge that today's Jews are usurpers. Aside from being a virulent anti-Semite, Peters has advocated the death penalty for homosexuals. According to the Anti-Defamation League, other speakers at the event included white supremacist leader and 1992 presidential candidate James "Bo" Gritz, a leader of the radical and increasingly violent militia movement, and Malcolm Ross, a Holocaust denier from Canada. In November of that same year, Barton spoke at Kingdom Covenant College in Grants Pass, Oregon, another "Christian Identity" front group with ties to Peters.

In the recent past, he has stated his belief that United States borders were drawn by God, thereby condemning illegal immigration as a sin against God.

“God’s the one who drew up the lines for the nations, so to say open borders is to say, ‘God, you goofed it all up and when you had borders, you shouldn’t have done it,’” he said recently on his radio program. “And so, from a Christian standpoint, you cannot do that. God’s the one who establishes the boundaries of nations.”

Barton's brand of revisionist history has come under intense criticism and he penchant for using unverified quotes from the founding fathers are used to support his idea that Constitution calls for the United States to be a Christian nation.

Kyle Mantyla, senior fellow with People For the American Way, told the Minnesota Independent:

That Rep. Bachmann would possibly tap someone like David Barton to teach this class is in no way surprising, since Bachmann clearly has no desire to gain a true understanding of the Constitution and is looking instead for an opportunity to pass off right-wing propaganda as scholarship. As such Barton is the perfect teacher for her effort. In fact, only Bachmann would considering having a class on the Constitution taught by a man whose academic credentials consist entirely of a B.A. from Oral Roberts University and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Pensacola Christian College.

Former Republican Senator Arlen Specter wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that Barton’s “pseudo-scholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.”

Tell it to the Newts of this world, Mr. Specter. At a Heritage Foundation speech pushing a school prayer amendment held on October 5, 1995, Newt Gingrich, who considers himself an historian and fancies himself a potential Republican candidate for president in 2012, praised Barton's books, calling them "most useful" and "wonderful."

Looking over Bachmann's list of speakers, who can hardly be considered experts, one wonders how much of this Bachmann-styled education is really just a form of Neo-Con brainwashing for the fresh faces of Washington.


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